Baseball Scouting Is Hard Yet Fascinating
The Ringer obtained 73,000 scouting reports from the Reds from 1991-2003, analyzed them, and this week rolled out a series of stories.
Part 1 opens with a perfect illustration of how hard it is to scout. In 1999, the Reds traded for Ken Griffey, Jr., the best player of the 90s. Ahead of the trade, a number of scouts filed reports:
“Outstanding tools across the board!” one scout wrote. “A future Hall of Famer. Is only active player with a chance to break Hank Aaron’s home run record and would like to see him do it in Cincinnati. Has ability to carry a club to the world series. Tremendous fan appeal, will sell tickets. If have a chance, would acquire.”
Another scout was even more effusive. “Best all-around player in baseball. Can do it all. IS THE MICHAEL JORDAN OF BASEBALL. Will personally sell more tickets than McGwire or Sosa. Can hit, hit with power, run, field & throw. Get 25 of this guy and you will have the best team in the history of baseball. Is a true franchise player. If you can acquire him, go get him! One of the best players in baseball that I would recommend paying top dollar for.
Look at that swing. Almost no one at that time would have disagreed with those reports. The Reds acquired him for three prospects, and almost everyone thought the Reds got a great deal. BUT!
Griffey was 30, had some worrisome injury history, and was coming off his worst statistical season. After the trade to the Reds, Griffey only played one more great season. In exchange, the Reds had given up outfielder Mike Cameron, along with two pitchers. The pitchers never amounted to much, but Cameron himself was more valuable the the Mariners in four seasons than Griffey was to the Reds in eight seasons.
Part 1 is full of interesting statistical analysis on what traits scouts seem to predict well, and which are more of a crapshoot.
Part 2 is fascinating, too. I’ve read Moneyball and seen the movie, so I understand many scouts look at, to paraphrase Billy Beane (at least in the movie; I forget if it’s in the book) how a player looked in jeans, as opposd . But this part is still pretty eye opening:
Keith Law, the ESPN prospect evaluator who worked for the Blue Jays from 2002 to 2006, says that while there may not have been big gaps between clubs in the skill of their scouting staffs in the era covered by the database, “scouting philosophies varied a lot across teams.” Sargent says that when he arrived, the Reds were “exclusively a run-and-throw organization. You draft a guy who can really run and really throw, and we’ll teach him how to hit.” The Reds, he adds, were notorious for conducting tryout camps and signing the players with the best arms and times in the 60-yard dash.
Hitting a baseball is often called the toughest thing in sports, and the Reds were like, “It’s easy. We’ll teach ‘em. Just give me a guy with a good 40-time.” That’s wild! And even wilder may be that the Reds produced a lot of talent back then. The scout referenced, Hank Sargent, was hired by the Reds in 1997. If we assume they had this “run and throw” philosophy for at least 15 years prior, the Reds produced a lot of talent in that time – Barry Larkin, Eric Davis, Chris Sabo, and Paul O’Neill, to name a few. (But maybe that wasn’t a fair assumption, because after being a consistently good team (including a World Series sweep over the A’s in 1990) from 1985 through 1995, the Reds fell off a cliff starting in 1996, only winning more than 81 games twice until 2010).
I highly recommend you read part 2, where The Ringer interviews four former players – Travis Hafner, David Ross, Ben Davis, and Jeff Schmidt – and talks about what the scouts got right about them, wrong about them, and what they couldn’t possibly have known. It’s fascinating.
The Ringer also published some funny actual scouting reports. Maybe my favorite so far is this one on Albert Pujols:
Laid back approach to game. Lazy out of box. No hustle. Has some show boat in him. Lacks hard work. Don’t put in quality time in pre-game work. Ball jumps off bat. Strong swing. Hard solid contact. … Attacks ball. Shows playable carry on throws from 3B. Makes plays at 3B. Shows quick reactions. Has soft playable hands. Drifts thru stroke on swing. Will get out front and reach for balls. Still learning situations while on base. Struggles with throwing acc. when on the move. Likes pitches low in zone. Struggles with belt high and up, breaking balls away. Value to Reds in minors. ML tops. Regular on 2nd division team. Role: 3B.
That was filed one year before Pujols got to the bigs and hit .329 with 37 dingers as a rookie. What’s interesting is that the scout saw some really good things – ball jumps off bat, strong swing, solid contact, attacks, strong harm, soft hands – those are all really important skills. But he couldn’t get beyond his initial surface-level observations, that may or may not have been accurate or may or may not have been influenced by cultural differences. And even if those initial observations were accurate, they were made of a guy who was at that time just 20-years old.
(If part 3 is any good, we’ll feature it next week) – TOB
Source: “Part 1: We Got Our Hands on 73,000 Never-Before-Seen MLB Scouting Reports. Here’s What We Learned“; “Part 2:MLB Scouting Is Hard. These Four Players Prove It“; Ben Lindbergh and Rob Arthur, The Ringer (03/04/2019); (03/06/2019)
PAL: Really enjoyed scrolling through this scouting time capsule. For, instance, I haven’t thought about Travis Hafner in what feels like a decade, but he was a serious masher for Cleveland for a handful of years. The Jamestown, ND native always had power, but he was slow, couldn’t field and couldn’t throw. Hafner even admitted that it’s hard to scout a guy with only one skill, because it is so rare for one tool to pay off at the highest level.
Scouting a number is much more cut-and-dry approach. A 60-yard sprint time translates – it doesn’t matter how good the competition is or where someone is from. There’s no nuance to a guy that throws mid-nineties. He has Major League arm strength, period. Those numbers translate. The number of home runs Travis Hafner hits at some midwest Junior College is much harder to compare than a 60-time or a radar gun reading.
Which is why scouting catchers must be hard. The article breaks down David Ross’ scouting report. This guy played sixteen big league seasons as a catcher. Guess how many hits he has. This shocked me: 521 career hits! You don’t stick around for sixteen years, earn over $22M (that’s over 40K per hit), if you don’t bring a lot of value in other ways. Ross was a solid defensive catcher, above average thrower, but he was an excellent framer of pitches and managed a pitching staff well and had a little pop at the plate. None of the talent that kept him in the game for so long would jump out at a scout.
The flipside of David Ross is Ben Davis.
Another catcher who fits all the old scout cliches. The classic “looks good in jeans” guy. While he had a great arm and an athletic frame, Davis could never hit big league pitching. It got so bad that guys wouldn’t even bother giving them their best stuff. How about anecdote:
Davis remembers facing Mike Mussina in a game in 2002. “I was scared to death of the knuckle-curve,” Davis recalls, but Mussina threw him nothing but fastballs. Davis struck out looking twice before doubling in his third at-bat. Four years later, Davis was in Yankees camp, catching Mussina. “Hey Moose,” he said. “You’ll never remember this, but you always just threw me all fastballs. Why did you never throw me the knuckle-curve?”
“Honestly, man?” Mussina said. “I never thought I had to.”
All of this comes down to projection, but a lot of times the qualities that keep an average big leaguer around are not obvious. As Ben Lindbergh puts it:
An insatiable desire to be better, buried within an unathletic-looking frame (Hafner). A difficult-to-quantify skill set out of step with its time (Ross). A jaw-dropping, deceptive physique (Davis). Poor player development (Schmidt). These are among the many reasons why a scout might miss.
Such an interesting baseball read.
TOB: Glad you got to that Mussina/Ben Davis quote. Geeze, man. That made me laugh and wince at the same time.
Nik Mittal Was Left Open
Man, what a great story. Nik Mittal is a father of three, recipient of a couple knee surgeries, a serious Carolina Tarheels fan, and the owner of some pride.
Now, at age 47, I am a New York City dad who watches Carolina basketball obsessively with his three sons and who, after a 15 year hiatus (thanks to a couple of knee surgeries) decided to play pickup again. But on the court recently, I came to a shocking realization.
My ugly but effective left-handed heave was no longer effective. I had become the player in the pickup game who everyone leaves open from a distance.
Call it ego, but I really didn’t want to be that guy. So I turned to the only expert I knew — my 10-year-old son’s basketball coach.
Mittal swallows his pride and hires a shooting coach. More specifically, he hires a youth coach to re-teach him how to shoot.
Turns out, he has some serious work to do, because his shot is butt-ass ugly. It was embarrassing.
But Mittal and Coach Macky work at it, starting close to the hoop and getting in a bunch of reps. Before long, there’s some recognition and improvement:
For one, I was landing with one leg practically a foot in front of the other. Macky had me stick a soccer ball between my legs and practice a series of jump shots while squeezing it between my knees.
This was surprisingly hard — either I’d brick the shot, or the soccer ball would pop out — until I focused on taking really small jumps, landing like I was on train tracks. Kavi even sort of complimented me, calling this an “advanced drill” that only the teenagers do.
I love this. Mittal isn’t grunting out 225 on the bench so he feels better looking in the mirror. Instead, his improvement has a point. Or at least more of a point. He doesn’t want to suck at the local game. Dropping a few shots in a weekend game is athletic success, and he wants that feeling playing the game he’s always loved. Go Mittal!
After some sessions with Coach Macky, Mittal goes back to the pickup game, and he’s shooting for the last spot in the next game. Read the article to find out how it ends for Mittal. – PAL
Source: “Can a Middle-Aged Dad Still Perfect His Jump Shot”, Nik Mittal, The New York Times (03/08/19)
TOB: Loved this, but especially loved when Phil called me an athletic success.
The Warriors Should Fire Bob Fitzgerald, Amen
My godddddd, I’ve been waiting years for someone to write this story. Bob Fitzgerald is a sports talk radio host on KNBR and, for some reason unknown to everyone I’ve ever talked to about him, the TV play by play announcer for the Golden State Warriors. He’s absolutely insufferable. He has zero redeeming qualities as an announcer – he doesn’t describe the action well, he doesn’t seem to have any great understanding of the game, he has a whiney voice AND he constantly whines, and on top of all those swell qualities, he’s an arrogant prick. If you’ve ever listened to his radio show, I pity you. He’s condescending to callers and overall a jerk.
This week, The Athletic’s Danny Leroux opened both barrels, with an open letter to Warriors owner Joe Lacob, calling for Lacob and the Warriors to leave Fitzgerald behind when the team moves to the Chase Center next year. Oh man, did I love it. Here’s the part I nodded along to most vigorously:
He has a penchant for turning anything that goes against the Warriors into something more nefarious than luck or the bounce of the ball, from referees that are out to get them to lucky shooters. While it is an easy trap to fall into, that mentality has been uncomfortably prevalent in the fan base for years and it may be largely explainable by having a broadcaster who speaks in those terms so frequently.
Sometimes referees just miss calls and sometimes 30-percent 3-point shooters make a few of them in a row and, like every team, the Warriors are on the positive end of those fortunate bounces frequently as well, something Fitzgerald rarely acknowledges. Thankfully, Jim Barnett notes it more often. That sets both a divisive and frustrating tone that gets some fans more aggrieved and alienates those watching the broadcast from any other perspective, including fans of the NBA or high-quality basketball more broadly. Fitzgerald’s rants on official broadcasts give the franchise a more aggressive and less professional perception without any coherent benefit, especially for one of the league’s best teams.
Source: “An Open Letter to Joe Lacob — the Warriors Deserve a Better Play-by-Play Man Than Bob Fitzgerald“, Danny Leroux, The Athletic (03/08/2019)
Video/Tweet of the Week: What the hell…
PAL Song of the Week: Oddisee – “Skipping Rocks”
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